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Hormel Strike Divides Town, But Christmas Spirit Prevails With AM-Christmas Needy Rdp Bjt

December 23, 1985

AUSTIN, Minn. (AP) _ Wreaths hang in windows and stores are decked out for Christmas, but a bitter, 4-month-old strike by union meatpackers has left little cheer in the hometown of Geo. A. Hormel & Co.

″It’s going to be a tense Christmas,″ said the Rev. Timothy Hodapp, assistant pastor at Queen of Angeles Roman Catholic Church. ″The greatest Christmas gift in Austin we could get would be a resolution.″

But Hodapp adds that the strike has ″brought us together.″

On Aug. 17, 1,500 members of Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union walked off their jobs in a dispute over wages and working conditions at the plant. It was the first strike in more than 50 years against the largest employer in this southern Minnesota town of 22,000, where Hormel was founded in 1891.

Dr. Larry Maier, a clinical psychologist in Austin, characterized the town’s mood as an ″ominous sense of foreboding″ that has left residents tense and frightened.

″People are very worried. I think the chance of aggression and damage and acting out (of impulses) is increasing daily now,″ Maier said.

″You just don’t feel good about things, whether it is the holiday season or the coming New Year. You tend to be jumpy, to be careful about what you say to anybody.″

Last week, strikers tried to block trucks entering the plant, which has been in limited production. P-9 leaders said the demonstrations, the first at the plant since the strike began, were spontaneous and resulted from strikers’ frustrations.

″I think certain people are feeling the effects of the company’s failure to treat us fairly, not just since the strike began, but before the strike began,″ said P-9 President Jim Guyette.

Before the walkout, union members were making $9.25 an hour. Now, they receive $40 a week in strike benefits. For those without savings, this Christmas means fewer gifts.

″I’ve got a 12-year-old daughter. I want to buy her something nice for Christmas, not something from the Salvation Army,″ said a striking worker walking the picket line outside the plant.

″They’re just giving you $40. You buy a six-pack, a tank of gas and a burger, and it’s gone,″ said the striker, who said he had worked for Hormel for 19 years but would not give his name.

Some union members say that although the strike has gone on longer than they expected, spirits remain high. Strikers bring cookies and coffee to pickets, who stand outside the plant 24 hours a day, in heated cars or huddled around fires in the sub-zero weather.

″It’s created a lot of hardship. It’s also created a lot of strength in the families and the union as a whole,″ said Jim Retterath, a member of the P-9 executive board.

To make sure no child would be without a toy this Christmas, union members volunteered to make wooden trucks and planes for the boys and teddy bears and Cabbage Patch dolls for the girls. The Austin Labor Center also distributes donated food and clothing to strikers.

″It’s brought us a lot of close friendships,″ said volunteer Barb Olson, whose husband is on strike.

Mrs. Olson said the homemade gifts for her three children mean more ″than ones you buy in a store and throw under a tree. There’ll be more love in this Christmas than we’ve ever had.″

Union members are voting by mail on a federal mediator’s proposed settlement to the strike. P-9 leaders have recommended that the rank-and-file reject the proposal, which would provide a $10 an hour base wage - the same as at eight other Hormel plants.

The vote will be counted Jan. 3, and Chuck Nyberg, Hormel’s senior vice president, said the company eventually will reopen the $100 million plant - with or without the strikers.

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